By Sarah Chen (19S03C), Rachel Lee (19A01D) and Keziah Lam (19A01B)
Disclaimer: This article, like all other Raffles Press articles, is not sponsored.
You don’t need to be an active frequenter of social media sites to notice the latest food-related fad, especially prominent with the new healthy addition of bubble tea to our school. For the uninitiated, this latest trend refers to the sudden appearance of a bunch of student-run Instagram pages encouraging more environmentally friendly lifestyles. These accounts may be run by a wide variety of students, but not unlike school meme pages, they all have a similar layout. A snazzy username made up of a school name and a phrase such as (but not limited to): plastic-free, straw-free or zero waste, a couple of anonymous student admins, regular posts with tips on how to make small changes in your lifestyle, and of course: the sale of metal straws.
To find out the school community’s opinions, we asked people around us about their genuine feelings towards the metal straw debacle. Responses ranged from “It’s cool that people are trying to do something for the environment” to more cynical ones such as “I am suffering because of it, I cannot use a straw without getting shamed by my friends” and “people are just getting into it for the Instagram clout”.
Though some of the opinions gathered were definitely more extreme, majority of the students seemed mostly apathetic, remarking that the trend doesn’t affect their lifestyle much, aside from the fact that they’ve been forced to stop using plastic straws when buying their daily Milo and ice lemon tea in school. Yes, everyone is aware of the huge amount of plastic waste humans generate – we’ve been hearing this in assembly talks since primary school. But then again, don’t straws only make up 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean? What’s with the sudden surge of straw-haters? Shouldn’t we be focusing on more important things in the world?
Anti-straw movements aren’t unique to Singapore, and have been picking up all across the world, but the fact that this trend has managed to gain this much traction within the student population is certainly noteworthy. These student-run accounts are a shining beacon for teenage advocacy, directly challenging the stereotype of self-centred and apathetic teenagers. In particular, schools such as Hwa Chong Institution can be credited with being one of the pioneers of this movement, having started the sale of straws as far back as April, while other schools were only quick to do so in June or July, with @plasticfreeraffles being an example closer to home.
An Interview with Raffles’ Very Own
In order to gain a deeper understanding of student advocacy and what motivates it, we sought the opinion of the admins behind the aforementioned account involved in the plastic-free movement, and a growing social media presence with 250 followers.
(This interview was conducted over text as the admins wish to remain anonymous.)
- How did you find out about this cause?
We gained inspiration largely from Instagram pages like @nocarrierpls and @byobottlesg! Lately there’s also been school pages popping up as well, like @strawfreecj and @strawfreenp.
- Why is this cause important and relevant in society?
We generate so much waste in Singapore but people are not talking about it. In schools alone many students use straws every day when buying drinks from the canteen or, in RI’s case, Chill. Apart from straws, excessive and unnecessary single-use plastic is saddeningly abundant; it’s a common sight to see people taking carriers for their drinks when they clearly can hold the drink in their hand.
Recycling culture in Singapore is also really weak and most of the items we throw into recycling bins don’t actually get recycled due to various reasons like contamination; furthermore, objects such as straws are too light to be recycled.
It may be the case that people don’t see, or don’t care about, the long term and accumulated impact of their actions. Regardless of whether one is unaware or just plain selfish, both contribute to the severity of the situation of excessive single-use plastic.
Not to mention, single-use plastics have earned a place in stores everywhere for their convenience — sandwiches at Chill are packaged in plastic containers; muffins and pastries come in plastic bags. There’s no denying that single-use plastic culture is largely prevalent and will take a significant collective effort on the part of student and staff to be uprooted.
- Why did you decide it was worthy enough to advocate for?
Not only is there a pressing need to reduce waste, as elaborated earlier, but this problem is a widespread one dependent on the small daily actions of individuals, making advocacy a feasible and effective medium for us to create tangible impact. We believe we have the capacity to change our schoolmates’ mindsets and actions, and this will hopefully go a long way in reducing waste in the long run. This in turn improves consumer habits, reduces waste, cuts carbon emissions, keeps the seas clean, et cetera — making it a more than worthy cause to advocate for.
- Have you received any negative feedback/response? If so, what?
Yes unfortunately :( My friend mentioned that she didn’t bother following the account or keeping up with the green movement because she felt it was just a trend nowadays and everyone’s hopping onto the straw-free bandwagon. But is it not a good thing that more and more people/schools are becoming more conscious of their plastic usage? While it’s for certain that there are some people who do it just for an Instagram pic or just because a metal straw looks pretty, we’re optimistic that most who participate in this green movement are aware of its necessity and the importance of their actions.
- Why should the school population care about this cause?
Why Shouldn’t They :P
- How can the school population contribute to this cause?
We really just want people to start small; stop using plastic straws, avoid plastic cups or utensils, and spread the message to your friends! You may find that your single effort is way too miniscule to even matter, but the accumulated effect makes a huge difference. If 1 person can save up to 10 straws in an average school week, a class of 25 will be able to save 250! However small your efforts may seem, don’t stop because it’s all these small steps that lead to greater changes.
Hopefully, the school population becomes more conscious of their unnecessary consumption of single-use plastic and actively takes efforts to curb this before it exacerbates further! While it may be quite unnatural to bring tupperware or non-disposable cutlery like straws around at first, doing it often helps to cement it into a habit :—)
Mixed in with the admins’ positive, hopeful responses is a sad but expected truth: some critical students aren’t taking this issue very seriously. Despite the strength in numbers and outreach ability that the use of social media affords, the fact that the platform is so widely frequented by teenagers, coupled with the fact that these pages thrive on photo submissions from followers to spread the word, almost undermines its legitimacy. It highlights the rapid spread of such trends born from social media, but also the transience of it— just as quick to die down as it was to rise.
Looking at other social media crazes (say, slime and self-care threads), it’s understandable that many lack faith in this one. Not only does it seem temporal, some question the motives behind supporters of the trend, thinking they’re just hopping on the bandwagon. While trends like this help to create awareness for a social issue, the skepticism of its staying power and motivations can distract people from the underlying significance of this traction-gaining movement.
And the movement is making waves. Other corporations around the world have committed to this cause, such as Starbucks pledging to phase out plastic straws by 2020. The effectiveness of this policy has yet to be seen, and people continue to question why the world is fixating on a small innocent straw of all things. But it’s through that straw – something ubiquitous in our daily life – that makes the problem seem all the more real to us. Activists and companies are hoping that the humble straw will be able to spark off a greater interest in conserving and creating sustainably as a whole. The straws are not meant to be the endpoint, but a start towards a more environmentally conscious humanity.
So, what does all this change? At best, an apathetic reader’s mind about the whole issue. Or maybe it won’t change anything at all. What we’re hoping is to at least make some readers reconsider their opinions on the whole movement, be it enthusiasm or apathy. It might sound ludicrous when our friends tell us to forgo a tiny straw for the sake of saving the environment (and the turtles, of course), but it doesn’t mean that that statement isn’t entirely true. Yes, straws may only constitute 0.03% of the plastic waste in our ocean, but if we aren’t even willing to take this baby step, we’ll never be able to reach the other 99.97%.
After all, the plastic-free movement encompasses a wide range of unnecessary plastic packaging and embellishments. Why stop at just straws? To prove that this isn’t just some short-lived fad centred around the aesthetique of metal straws, we need to show that we’re making the effort to eradicate all kinds of plastic from our lives. To start simply, we can easily turn down plastic carriers or bags we don’t need – we always have our school bags and pockets! Instead of purchasing mineral water bottles from convenience stores, we can make a point to bring our own reusable ones instead. Or reject the plastic containers that come with takeaway food in favour of our own reusable Tupperware. While we might not have control over some plastic use (such as the plastic sandwich boxes and bags in Chill), we can change what we do have control over.
This may have all started from straws, but let’s make sure this movement doesn’t just end here.